AMSTERDAM - A Dutch court said on Thursday that Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was shot down in 2014 by a Russian-made missile fired from a field in eastern Ukraine and that Russia had overall control of separatist forces at the time.
The court is reading its ruling in the case of four men with links to Russia accused of mass murder for their alleged roles in the downing of the flight.
The MH17 passenger flight was shot down over eastern Ukraine on July 17, 2014, killing all 298 passengers and crew.
At the time, the area was the scene of fighting between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian forces, the precursor of this year's conflict. Russia invaded Ukraine in February and claims to have annexed the Donetsk province where the plane's wreckage and victims' remains were once scattered across cornfields.
Reading a summary of the ruling, Presiding Judge Hendrik Steenhuis said the men did not enjoy any immunity from prosecution as they were not members of the Russian armed services.
"There is no reasonable doubt" that MH17 was shot down by a BUK missile system, Steenhuis said.
The suspects are Russians Igor Girkin, Sergey Dubinskiy and Oleg Pulatov, all former intelligence officers, and Ukrainian Leonid Kharchenko, a Ukrainian separatist leader.
They are accused of having arranged and transported the BUK missile system, but not of personally having fired it.
All face sentences of up to life in prison.
Victims' representatives say the ruling will be an important milestone, though the suspects remain fugitives. They are all believed to be in Russia, which will not extradite them.
Moscow denies any involvement or responsibility for MH17's downing and in 2014 it also denied any presence in Ukraine. In a briefing in Moscow on Thursday, Deputy Foreign Ministry Spokesman Ivan Nechaev told reporters the government would examine the court's findings.
"We will study this decision because in all these issues, every nuance matters," he said.
The four men were charged with shooting down an airplane and with murder in a trial held under Dutch law. They could alternatively be convicted of manslaughter charges if judges at the Hague District Court find the act was not premeditated.
Phone call intercepts that formed a key part of the evidence against the men suggested they believed they were targeting a Ukrainian fighter jet.
Of the suspects, only Pulatov pleaded not guilty via lawyers he hired to represent him. The others were tried in absentia and none attended the trial.
Victims of MH17, which had been en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, came from 10 different countries. More than half were Dutch.
The investigation was led by the Netherlands, with participation from Ukraine, Malaysia, Australia and Belgium.
(Reporting by Toby Sterling; Editing by Jon Boyle and Alex Richardson)